Why Texas Motor Speedway Refuses to Give Up on IndyCar
Last year, the NTT IndyCar Series played Texas Motor Speedway before a poor crowd that many estimated to be between just 15,000 and 30,000 on race day.
Despite that fact, TMS will once again play host to IndyCar for the next several years, starting with this Sunday’s PPG 375.
Now that the pandemic is under control, TMS officials are optimistic that Sunday’s crowd will be bigger and better than the last three-plus years.
A year ago, it appeared as if IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway were on the verge of a divorce. The two had been joined at the hip with at least one race at TMS each year since 1997, including nearly a decade where TMS hosted two IndyCar events per year.
But with steadily declining attendance in recent years and last year being the final year of a four-year contract between the track and the racing series, if there ever was a time to make a break, that was it.
Plus, Circuit of the Americas—225 miles away and which had played host to IndyCar for just one race in 2019—provided a strong lure to IndyCar teams with an exciting and challenging road course that not only drew hundreds of thousands of fans each year to the annual Formula 1 event there, but also became one of the new additions to the NASCAR schedule.
But even with drivers complaining about lack of promotion for last year’s race, not to mention the poor crowd that many estimated to be between just 15,000 and 30,000 on race day in 2022 (the Fort Worth Star Telegram estimated the crowd in 2021 "looked to be no more than 20,000), TMS will once again play host to IndyCar for the next several years, starting with this Sunday’s PPG 375.
The weekend will also include the return of what had been a traditional undercard for the IndyCar weekend at TMS for several years, namely, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race on Saturday.
So what happened? Why is IndyCar back at TMS not just for this year but several more years to come?
First of all, even with the declining attendance in recent years, much of that could be attributed to the pandemic. Now that the pandemic is under control, TMS officials are optimistic that Sunday’s crowd will be bigger and better than the last three-plus years.
But there’s also another key reason why IndyCar is back deep in the heart of Texas. Even with slipping attendance numbers, TMS still provides one of the most exciting oval track venues in the country. Cars easily crack 220 mph, making TMS the second-fastest track on the IndyCar circuit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, host of the Indianapolis 500.
“It's very important to have IndyCar at Texas Motor Speedway,” TMS executive vice president and general manager Mark Faber told Autoweek. "There was a lot of rumors, comments that (IndyCar) wasn't coming back. That's not the case.
“We have a multi-year partnership. We are very excited and it all starts at the top of our respect for Roger Penske, what he has done for the sport, what he has done with Texas Motor Speedway, he's got a strong relationship with Marcus Smith and the Smith family. And so those two have continued that working relationship that Bruton (late Speedway Motorsports founder Bruton Smith) started, and we have a strong, strong partnership with them. And so we're excited.”
Following a long career as a top executive with entertainment giant AEG, Faber joined TMS last September, at the tail end of negotiations that renewed and extended the TMS-IndyCar marriage for the next several years.
Faber knew COTA, in Austin, Texas, was lurking somewhat in the background, although there are mixed reports whether COTA was truly interested in having IndyCar back after just a one-year, one-and-done situation in 2019 (which is where Colton Herta won his first IndyCar race).
“That was all rumors and speculation,” Faber said about the possibility of IndyCar moving from TMS to COTA. “I don't have any knowledge of discussions about moving to COTA. I've been on the job seven months now and in my seven months, not one person has told me we were seriously considering moving IndyCar to COTA.
“So, IndyCar is an important series to Texas Motor Speedway. Teams can come here, they can drive on an oval, they're all looking down the road at the Indianapolis 500. We've already had some testing here a couple of weeks ago.
“I was coming in at the tail end of those discussions between Speedway Motorsports and Penske (to bring IndyCar back to TMS). What I was told at that time was (IndyCar has) been at Texas Motor Speedway since 1997, (IndyCar) wanted to come back, we wanted them to come back. We've got a great working relationship with them and we found a beautiful way to extend it on a multi-year basis.”
Faber joining TMS when he did essentially put the finishing touches on the renewal with IndyCar. Since the renewal announcement was made late last September, the track and the racing series have worked together more closely than ever to significantly increase promotion and attention of the event not just in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area, but throughout Texas and the Southwest.
“The partnership with IndyCar is a joint-venture approach and collaboration,” Faber said. “We are working very closely with IndyCar and how we promote in this market. They're leaning in on some things this year that I understand they haven't done in the past, which is great.”
To that end, a number of IndyCar drivers are also taking an active participatory role, hosting a number of events for fans that include at least one ticket for the race in addition to various hospitality, meet-and-greet and other participatory activities, all in an effort to not only promote the IndyCar brand, but to increase a driver’s reach and engagement with fans. Among drivers taking part this weekend include defending series champion Will Power, Mexican driver Pato O’Ward and Santino Ferrucci.
“What's really important, probably more so than any other year, is driver participation,” Faber said. “We have drivers that are working through their own verticals, and their own network to offer to their fan base, special hospitality packages for the IndyCar race, which is fantastic. (For example), we're hearing that several hundred people are flying up from Mexico for this race as a part of a package with Pato.
“It all goes back to fan experience. And it's all about the fans, which has been the Smith family mantra and motto for a number of years, and we're just trying some unique things to bring fans out.”
Sunday’s race is a bit unusual in the sense that the green flag will drop shortly after noon ET, 11 a.m. CDT in Fort Worth. That’s earlier than most IndyCar race starts. Part of the reason is due to NBC Sports’ telecast window. But there’s other elements that make a great deal of sense.
“We are pointing positive and we’re trending up,” Faber said of pre-race ticket sales. “There's a lot of competition in Dallas-Fort Worth and that's one of the things that we're constantly working on. We're the fourth largest Metroplex in the United States.
“So, as we come into this weekend, there's a lot of things for people to do. We have the (Major League Baseball’s Texas) Rangers’ opening weekend, we have Taylor Swift doing three shows at AT&T Stadium, we have the women’s Final Four basketball, the men’s Final Four is in Houston, which is a short drive. So I mean, there's a lot going on, but we like this weekend. We're really excited about this weekend, as far as getting fans out here. We think it'll be a nice warm weather weekend.
“We have affordable ticket pricing, kids under 12 are free on Saturday and they're $10 on Sunday. That's a good deal. We have free parking. We have new expanded seating, with more leg room in the grandstands.”
And then there’s perhaps the best lure of all, yet another reason why things are always bigger and better in Texas: “We have the world's longest bar from turn four to turn one, the length of 10 football fields,” Faber chuckled.
However, there is still a significant disparity between crowd turnout at TMS and for F1 and NASCAR events at COTA. Last year, F1 drew a reported 440,000 for race weekend in October.
If IndyCar can draw 10 percent of that number this weekend, it may be lucky.
“It's really not apples to apples,” Faber said. “The revenue numbers are not the same. And so when you start with a revenue differential like that, that certainly affords you the opportunity to do some things in one sport that you are unable to do another sport.
“It doesn't mean that the racing is less exciting or any less meaningful, it just means that maybe the technology is different, or some of the amenities are different because of the price points. We're not looking to compete with F1. The reason that a lot of fans come to our race and the races this weekend is the affordability. The F1 packages are costly in comparison to what we're doing here.
“There's a difference, obviously, between ovals and road courses. But there's nothing more exciting than seeing the Indy cars go around here at 225 miles an hour. It's just incredible. I was at COTA this past weekend for the NASCAR race, and don't get me wrong, that's a great course, but that racing is a lot different.
“What separates us is that we have them on the oval, it's high speed, you have to be paying attention every second on the racetrack. And it gives fans the opportunity to see how really great athletes there are that are behind the wheels of these machines driving around the track.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski